Resources of Resistance: Why Every Grade 10 History Teacher Should Teach About the Holocaust

Posted by Ben Gross on March 14, 2013

I am often asked why I would want to teach about genocide. What would possess me to spend so much time reading, talking, and thinking about some of the worst events in human history? My answer to this question has always been inspired by Wangari Maathai’s Story of the Hummingbird. Like many good stories, the way it is told varies. My delivery tends to be the following:

There once was a beautiful old forest. It was home to many different animals, great and small. One day in the old forest, a fire started. The fire began to grow. As it grew, the animals who called the forest home began to flee. As they ran, they told more animals about the fire until all of the animals of the forest were running and flying away from the flames that were consuming their homes. They fled until they came to the edge of a river. They all crossed the river in their own way. The birds flew, the otter swam, and the bear found a shallow spot and crossed on foot. There they stood on the far side of river, watching as the forest destroyed their home. They all watched. Frozen. All except one: the hummingbird. The hummingbird flew out over the river and grabbed a drop of water in his beak, flew out over the fire, and dropped the drop of water. The animals watched in confusion. They said and did nothing as the hummingbird continued to fly furiously back and forth from river to fire. Finally, the greatest of the animals, the bear, spoke up. He said “Little hummingbird, what is it that you think you are doing?” The hummingbird did not reply. It continued to fly back and forth with water, dropping a drop at a time into the inferno. The bear grew frustrated and finally shouted out “The flames are too big, you will never be able to put it out!” At this, the hummingbird paused momentarily in his battle with the flames and replied, “Maybe not. But I am doing all that I can.”

This story has always served as an inspiration for me when I feel like I am not making an impact on the world. However, as I read the journals of my Grade 10 students after the completion of our four-class Facing History inspired unit on the Holocaust, I found a new imperative to my answer. In one of the journal responses to learning about Stanley Milgram’s experiments on human obedience a student wrote:

“At first I was rather surprised by these results [65% compliance], but after examining my upbringing, and what values I was brought up with, I realized how natural this truly was. I was taught to never talk back to superiors. I was taught to obey my parents, teachers, and adults, and to trust them. While these lessons were essential and beneficial during my childhood (or so I believe), it is clear that it’s also deprived me of free thinking. I still strongly believe that people are defined by their upbringing, and this should be a strong indication that our method of education should change. It should be clear that the results of this experiment directly correlate with the success of the Nazi regime, and many other acts of social injustice, such as bullying. Hitler didn’t need to hypnotise the people of Germany to make them follow him. All he needed was a bit of authority, and the people of Germany hypnotized themselves. So, how have we changed since Hitler’s reign? Who’s to say we won’t blindly follow the next guy? To truly prevent a tragedy like the Holocaust from happening again, we need to change our habit of blind obedience.”

The student wrote this in response to Milgram’s assertion that when “asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.” This reflection is an excellent example of why I love to teach about difficult topics such as genocide. It sparks essential capacities for our students - deep thinking and meaningful personal reflection. These skills are desperately needed in a world in which “we need to change our habit of blind obedience.”

Topics: Facing History Resources, History, milgram, resistance, reflection


This is where Canadian Facing History and Ourselves teachers and community members meet to share reflections, scholarship and teaching practices that will inspire, challenge and improve teaching and student learning. Our stories provide a window into diverse Facing History classrooms in Canada, and invite you into the discussion.

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